REVIEW: If I were to buy an Android phone, it would be the Pixel 2 XL

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Google’s original Pixel was one of the best Android smartphones you could buy this year, and it’s a tough act to follow – even for Google itself.

The new Pixel 2 XL, is the larger version Google’s new Pixel line-up, boasting a 6-inch screen compared to the Pixel 2’s 5-inch screen. It starts at $850 for the 64GB base model.

The Pixel 2XL starts off with a big advantage over rival phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, and the the LG V30: It runs Google’s pure Android operating system. That means timely updates and nicer, less-cluttered feel than the modified software that other phone makers add to their devices.

But to top the competition, the Pixel 2 XL needs an excellent camera and fast performance. After putting this phone through its paces, I can tell you that the Pixel 2 XL strongly delivers, and it’s the Android phone to buy.

Here’s why:

The Pixel 2 XL is a solid, sturdy, good-looking phone, even if it doesn’t quite match the premium feel of recent Apple or Samsung phones.

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I’m happy with the overall look and feel of the Pixel 2 XL. It’s undeniably a premium device on the front with its all-glass front panel and somewhat narrow bezels, and the back is minimalist and tastefully plain.

If you’re looking for ultra-premium looks and feel, though, the Pixel 2 XL may disappoint. The bezels are larger on the Pixel 2XL than they are on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X, and the back is plastic, save for the small glass section towards the top. These days, premium flagships have been clad in glass or metal, which feel decidedly more premium.

Still, I don’t think the Pixel 2 XL’s less-premium build is a deal-breaker by any means. It feels positively solid, and the smooth matte plastic back is actually very nice. It’s relatively light, too, which makes it more comfortable to hold and use.

It has a great screen, but it’s pretty much standard among premium flagship Android phones.

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As far as the display is concerned, it’s pretty much the same display quality and resolution you’d see on other flagship Android phones, like the Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30.

The Pixel 2 XL has a 6-inch pOLED display that’s essentially the same as the original Pixels’ AMOLED display. It makes for gorgeous colors and contrast between light and dark areas on the screen, especially when you compare it to the iPhone 8’s LCD display.

It’s a sharp 1440p resolution display that’s also pretty standard among Android flagship smartphones, but it’s technically sharper than both the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. I say “technically” because it’s hard to distinguish a difference on small smartphone screens.

Google made the Pixel 2 XL’s display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, which means it’s taller than the standard 16:9 screens that most smartphone had before 2016. Starting in 2016, many smartphone makers like Samsung and LG started making phone screens with similar 18:9 aspect ratios. Having a taller screen is actually quite nice, as you can see more of your apps’ content on the screen.

Google also added the “always on” display feature, which constantly shows you basic-but-useful bits of information when the Pixel 2 XL is in sleep mode, like the time, or the fact that you have notifications waiting to be dealt with.

One of the Pixel 2 XL’s killer features is the fact that it runs a pure Google operating system.

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Nothing beats the pure Android experience from Google.

Almost every Android phone out there runs a separate layer of software on top of the Android operating system itself. This software layer is usually called a “launcher,” and it helps Android phone makers differentiate themselves by adding features and changing the way Android looks.

Most of the time, the phone maker launchers fall flat. They simply don’t look as good as pure Android, and their launchers can feel like they’re bogging down their phone’s performance. Like the original Pixel, the Pixel 2 XL runs Google’s own Pixel 2 launcher on top of stock Android, and it’s fantastic. It’s clean, simple, fast, and responsive.

Some phones, most notably the OnePlus 5, run a near-stock version of Android, too. At the same time, only Google’s Pixel phones get Android updates right when Google releases them. Non-Pixel phones are usually late to receive Android updates because phone makers have to make sure the latest Android update works with their launchers and hardware. If you buy your phone from a wireless carrier, Android updates also have to go through the carriers to make sure the latest Android update is compatible with the carrier’s network and settings. All this causes significant delays when it comes to receiving Android updates.

In contrast, Pixel owners are always running on the latest version of Android, whereas third-party Android phone owner are usually lagging behind.

The Pixel 2 XL performs beautifully.

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The Pixel 2 XL is made by Google itself, much like the iPhone is made by Apple itself. The tight integration between hardware and software has a noticeable effect on performance.

The Pixel 2 XL runs on the newer and more powerful Snapdragon 835, but the the marriage of Google’s Android OS and Google’s Pixel hardware is so efficient that it almost feels like the Pixel 2 XL isn’t putting any strain on its chip. That should make for some great future-proofing, where the Pixel 2 XL will continue to perform amazingly well for at least a couple years.

The Pixel 2 XL has a phenomenal camera.

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As shown by the photo above, the Pixel 2 XL has a genuinely fantastic camera. It captured an incredible amount of cloud detail which I couldn’t even see myself without sunglasses. It over-exposed a few areas of the clouds, but the Pixel 2 XL’s camera still did an amazing job considering how bright the sky was at the time the photo was taken.

Amazingly, the Pixel 2 XL also managed to keep other details brightly lit, like the buildings and street. Normally, a camera has to reduce its sensitivity to light to handle bright sky detail, which would usually result in the buildings and street being overly dark. But the Pixel 2 XL balanced the differences in brightness beautifully.

I have yet to put it to the test against the iPhone 8 Plus, our current top smartphone camera, to see how well it holds up. Judging from the photo above, I’m pretty confident that the Pixel 2 XL’s camera will have similarly good performance as the iPhone 8 Plus’s camera, if not better.

Google also managed to give its new Pixel 2 phones a great portrait mode, despite only having one rear camera.

Most phones with a portrait mode, where the background is made to look more blurry, use a dual-lens camera setup, like the iPhone 8 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. The Pixel 2 XL achieves an excellent portrait mode with only a single lens.

Using portrait mode helped highlight the tomato in front of a blurry background, giving off a professional look. The Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode looks suprisingly natural, too, considering the effect is produced mostly by software.

The Pixel 2 XL also has portrait mode for the front camera, something other smartphones don’t have — and it’s really good.

The battery life is excellent.

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As with most phones fresh out of their boxes, the Pixel 2 XL has excellent battery life. It easily makes it through a typical day of web browsing, social media lurking, photo-taking, Google Maps, emailing, phone calls, and YouTube videos.

It charges quickly, too, with the included USB-C charger. Google boasts seven hours of battery life for actual real world usage, like “a mixed use of talk, standby, web browsing and other features, with always on display off,” from just 15 minutes of charging.

The combination of great battery life and fast charging meant that I rarely felt the need to charge the Pixel 2 XL overnight. I could simply give it a quick burst of charging here and there over the course of a day and feel confident that I always had enough battery life.

One feature that Google hasn’t yet added to its Pixel 2 smartphones is wireless charging. It might seem like a missed opportunity, especially when Apple introduced wireless charging to its latest crop of iPhones. At the same time, wireless charging isn’t a feature I’m dying for. As I mentioned above, the combination of fast charging and the Pixel 2 XL’s great battery life already gives me all day battery life without much worry.

The Pixel 2 XL has a slightly larger 3,520mAh battery than the Galaxy Note 8’s 3,300mAh battery, but I didn’t notice much difference in battery life between the two.

Google also added a couple new features we didn’t see in the previous Pixel XL.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL now have IP67 water and dust resistance, which should let the Pixel 2 phones survive in up to three feet of water for up to 30 minutes. That’ll be handy for that one time you accidentally drop the Pixel 2 phones in water.

The Pixel 2 XL also has dual front-facing loudspeakers. I suppose it sounds better than the single downward facing speaker from the original Pixel XL, but I’d still use headphones to watch a movie or a TV show on the Pixel 2 XL. Having front-facing speakers does, however, make it easier to hold the Pixel 2 XL on either side without worrying about covering the speaker with your hands.

And you can now squeeze the Pixel 2 XL to bring up Google Assistant.

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This is a somewhat interesting feature that adds an extra way to interact with the Pixel 2 XL beyond tapping the screen, pressing buttons, or even using your voice.

You can squeeze the “Active Edges” of the Pixel 2 phones to bring up the Google Assistant smart AI assistant, as well as silencing a call. It’s a nice little feature to have, as it lets you pull up Google Assistant from the lock screen without unlocking the phone. Yet, unfortunately, that’s about all you can do right now, and you can’t customize what you want the squeeze feature to do. It would be great if Google would allow Pixel 2 owners to customize what squeezing the phone does, especially for actions that users might use more often than Google Assistant, like opening the camera app from the lock screen.

Something to note: Squeezing the Pixel 2 XL to pull up the Google Assistant can be awkward, as you can easily accidentally press the volume down button in your grip. That wouldn’t be a problem if pressing the volume down button while you squeeze the phone didn’t prevent the Active Edge from working. It would have been better overall if the power and volume buttons occupied their own sides of the phone, both for the Active Edge feature and general use.

While it added features, it took one important feature away.

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There’s no headphone jack on the Pixel 2 XL, despite the fact that Google poked fun at Apple in 2016 for removing the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. It’s just something we’ll have to get used to, as more and more phones are now being released without headphone jacks.

Apparently, Google removed the headphone jack so it could make future Pixel phones with thinner bezels around the display, and removing the headphone jack “sooner rather than later” will make it easier to “make the shift,” a Google executive told TechCrunch.

The transition to headphone jack-less phones isn’t so bad for me, as I’ve been using wireless Bluetooth headphones for years. And Google includes a headphone jack USB-C dongle adapter in case you want to keep using your wired headphones.

Curiously, Google didn’t include any headphones at all with the Pixel 2 phones. That shouldn’t be a problem for most people who already have headphones. But if you don’t, you’ll have buy your own pair. In a way, it make sense, as most people who care about audio quality would use their own pair instead of the headphones that are usually included with new phones. People who don’t care so much about audio quality can use any old pair they have lying around, or get a cheap pair.

Overall, the Pixel 2XL is an absolute winner.

While it might not be the most premium-looking Android smartphone you can buy, Google’s Pixel 2 XL is easily one of the best. Indeed, other Android phones like the Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30 also have excellent cameras, performance, battery life, and features, but the Pixel 2 XL’s wild card is its pure Android operating system that other phones simply can’t compete against.

If I were to pick up an Android phone today, it would be the Pixel 2 XL. And if any iPhone users out there ever wanted to try Android, I’d strongly suggest they get their first taste of Android by getting the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL.